Senator Joe Manchin is a red state Democrat who has a sterling “gun rights” reputation and an “A” rating from the NRA. Every one of his utterances on Obama’s gun package is being scrutinized with Talmudic intensity, since it’s widely presumed that red state Dems risk instant political self-immolation if they go anywhere near even the most sensible and popular gun law reforms.

And so it turned some heads when he was quoted in the New York Times this morning saying this, after a meeting with constituents:

Mr. Manchin left the meeting saying he was not at all comfortable with supporting the assault weapons ban favored by many of his colleagues in Congress. “I’m not there,” he said, adding that he was leaning toward strengthening screening gun purchases instead. “I’m definitely more inclined to be very supportive of background checks.”

By itself, this doesn’t mean anything, since he could simply mean he supports the current National Instant Criminal Background Check System and wants to strengthen it within existing law, by improving the national database and encouraging better sharing of records by states and at the federal level. The key question is: Do Senators support action by Congress to require background checks on all gun sales, closing a loophole in the law that currently allows many private gun sales to take place without a check on the buyer?

I asked Manchin spokesperson Katie Longo for further clarification. She emailed:

Senator Manchin has made no official statement on any specific legislation. In the NY Times, he said he was more open to improving background checks, just like the NRA, to see if there are any ways we can improve and enhance the current system to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. That is why he hopes to create a commission on mass violence. In the meantime, he is still talking with West Virginians to hear their concerns and ideas on this complicated issue.

This still doesn’t answer the core question. The statement is inconclusive on whether he could support new legislative action to achieve universal background checks, and indeed, it notes that Manchin wants to improve and enhance the “current system.” What’s more, it suggests Manchin is in line with the NRA on this topic — and the NRA does not support universal background checks. In other words, there is no indication here at all that Manchin is open to new legislation to achieve universal background checks.

Gun reform advocates were very hopeful when Manchin signaled the other day that he was open to gun law reform. But it still remains unclear whether he is even willing to entertain the proposal for universal background checks, which is eminently sensible and has extremely broad support, including among gun owners and even NRA households.

As noted here the other day, most red state Dems are not willing to say whether they support even the principle that we should do more legislatively to screen gun purchases to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Manchin’s position today does nothing to undercut the sense that red state Dems are finding even this idea too politically hot to handle.